Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme: is it what families really need?

Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme: is it what families really need?

Katie Adema

After years of ongoing debate and pressure from the public, legislation for the first national paid parental leave scheme was passed in Australian parliament on July 17, 2010. Close to two years on, the Australian public are still unhappy with the scheme, demanding it be altered to cater for stay-at-home mums and those in same-sex relationships.

This dissatisfaction is not unfounded. In comparison to other developed countries, Australia measures up very poorly in terms of support for parents. In 2010, researchers from the US Center for Economic and Policy Research examined the parental leave schemes from 21 high-income nations. Sweden and Germany were ranked first, both offering 47 weeks of paid parental leave. Australia and the United States brought up the rear, with 18 and 14 weeks respectively.

Clearly Australia needs to continue working towards a better paid parental leave scheme. But what are the current options? And which one will put Australia on the right path to establishing a more adequate paid parental leave scheme?

Implemented on January 1, 2011, the current scheme was formed by the Labor government, and entitles the mother to 18 weeks of paid leave on minimum wage before tax. Minimum wage is equivalent to $590 a week per mother, which is fully funded by taxpayers.

President of the Bega State Electorate Council (Labor) and member of the NSW ALP Policy Forum, Leanne Atkinson, believes a point of difference between Labor and Liberal’s scheme is the way they are funded.

“This [Labor’s scheme] is taxpayer funded. So, we all contribute and I believe this is more equitable and that it takes pressure off individual employers,” she said.

However, a poll conducted by Galaxy Research three months before the legislation was passed, indicate that although Labor’s scheme did have the most support – with 37 per cent as opposed to Liberal’s 28 per cent – up to 35 per cent of those asked did not support either scheme. This obvious lack of solid support for either scheme shows that both simply don’t measure up to the public’s expectations of what a paid parental leave scheme should provide.

The Australian Family Association, a not-for-profit, non-party political organisation for family support, doesn’t approve of either scheme.

“It’s a reward for loyalty to the workforce, so we aren’t in support of it,” Terri Kelleher, spokesperson for the association, said.

“It excludes mothers that choose to be stay-at-home parents, or those that work from home. Parenting in itself should be supported by the paid parental leave scheme.”

However, Ms Atkinson said the scheme is based upon the idea that increased productivity leads to economic growth.

“As women make up around 52 per cent of the population, it is important that they have an opportunity, and are encouraged to contribute to economic activity,” she said.

“We all benefit if women are supported to work.”

Labor’s scheme also works to address other national issues, such as the strain the rapidly ageing population is placing on resources.

“We also need to increase our birth rate to ensure we have population increase and that we then can deal with the needs of the ageing community as they place increasing demands on services such as health,” Ms Atkinson said.

Labor has also proposed a ‘dad and partner’ wage to be part of their paid parental leave scheme, which, if legislation is passed, will entitle the father or partner to two weeks of paid leave on minimum wage before tax.

The legislation for this payment has not been approved by parliament yet, but the push to include fathers and partners in the parental leave scheme is an important step towards establishing equality in parenting roles.

Research has shown that although it is still true that more mothers than fathers are the primary caregivers, the presence of both parents in the infant’s early stages of life is important to their development. It ensures the newborn connects emotionally to their caregivers, which in turn encourages the development of feelings of trust and confidence that will help the child acquire the skills they need to cope with change.

In the same way that establishing a close connection between parent and child early in life helps produce a happy and well-developed child, a lack of connection, perhaps caused by the parent’s need to return to work shortly after giving birth, can pose possible risks to a child’s mental health. It has been proven that separating a child from their parents, particularly their mother, can be linked to mental illnesses later in life.

The Liberal Party’s proposed paid parental leave scheme addresses this need to provide more time for the mother to bond with her child, offering 26 weeks of paid leave over Labor’s 18.

Federal Member for Calare and member of the Nationals Party, John Cobb, believes the extra time provided by the Opposition government’s scheme puts it a step ahead of Labor’s.

“The Coalition offers a plan that actually gives mothers an opportunity to spend serious time with their new baby, and she can stay at home for longer before she has to return to work,” he said.

“The Labor scheme is a start, but it doesn’t offer nearly as good an opportunity as the Coalition plan.”

With the Opposition’s scheme, the mother would be entitled to 26 weeks leave on a full replacement wage, including superannuation contributions, while the father would receive two weeks leave on his full replacement wage, also with super contributions.

The scheme would be fully funded by the Federal Government, which would take the pressure off taxpayers. But Ms Atkinson sees this as a weak point, rather than a draw card for the legislation.

“I think it is great in theory, but how are they going to fund it given they want to get us back in surplus and the budget is already tight,” she said.

But Mr Cobb said the Coalition are doing all they can to help support families during such a crucial time in a child’s development.

“When I was young, my mother was always around, and it’s just sad that nowadays in most cases both parents need to go back to work,” he said.

“So what we’re trying to do is make that doable for the parents and as good as possible for the mother and the child.”

Ms Kelleher argues that the reason the Coalition’s scheme doesn’t receive support from the public either is because their scheme is based on the same premise as Labor’s, encouraging parents to return to the workforce rather than encouraging parenting. Along with this, both plans favour those in paid work, leaving stay-at-home mums out of the picture.

A poll conducted by The Australian Family Association and Kids First Parent Association of Australia indicates the dissatisfaction of Australians with both schemes in terms of equality for all mums. Over 60 per cent of respondents stated they were in favour of equal funding for all mothers, whether they were stay at home mums or in paid work. This support is particularly strong from younger people, with 79 per cent of the18-34 age group voting for equal pay.

Across the board, the Australian public is supportive of stay-at-home parents receiving the same payment as those in paid work. But what about same-sex couples?

“I think that’s getting into a whole other argument,” said Ms Kelleher.

“But we [The Australian Family Association] believe it should be a parenting payment rather than specifically for the mother or for the father, it should be for whoever is doing the parenting.”

One of the aspects of Labor’s scheme that puts it in front of the Coalition’s is that same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples are eligible to receive the parenting payment.

“We cannot discriminate,” said Ms Atkinson.

“Families are made up of both same sex and opposite sex partners. So, it must be fair.”

Both schemes have pros and cons: the Coalition provides a further 8 weeks over Labor, and is fully funded by the Federal Government. Yet Labor’s scheme includes same-sex couples. Neither scheme includes stay-at-home mothers, or measures up to other developed countries.

It is time the government started listening to the public, so they can establish a paid parental leave scheme that includes everything that Australian families need and want.

“They want choice and flexibility,” said Ms Kelleher. “They want to be able to rear their families in any way they choose.”

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